Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Musical genius Shinichi Chiaki came to Paris to make a name for himself, and he's got the opportunity at last—with a downtrodden, once-proud orchestra that can barely keep itself together. Chiaki is so desperate for musicians that he even calls in eccentric pianist (and now girlfriend) Nodame to fill in, but things get really messy when superstar (and romantic rival) Rui shows up! Is there any musical hope at all for this ensemble? Meanwhile, Nodame faces her own challenges in learning to play well with others: free-spirited bassoonist Paul and uptight oboist Kuroki are teaming up with her for their chamber music exam at the Conservatory. But even if they pass, Nodame has her solo piano exam to deal with, and what will the professors think of her talented but unconventional style?
Could it be? A Nodame Cantabile story arc that doesn't involve a music competition? Yes, after winning just about everything there is to be won (and going on a celebratory world tour), our favorite up-and-coming conductor Chiaki has finally embarked upon an actual music career. The title character hasn't been forgotten, though; Nodame gets her moment in the spotlight too as she takes the end-of-school-year exams at the Paris Conservatory. All in all, this volume is about tests rather than contests—Chiaki's trial by fire with a struggling orchestra, and Nodame's evaluation in front of France's best and brightest—which makes for a good storyline that's actually headed somewhere (as opposed to the episodic mediocrities of the last couple of volumes). In addition, the overarching theme of the series is on full display once more, with plenty of music-performance scenes.
Although the first few chapters are decidedly Chiaki-centric, what may be most interesting is it's the other characters around him, as well as his interactions with them, that really drive this arc. It's not so much about Chiaki's conducting ability, for example, but whether he can get along with arrogant concertmaster at his new orchestra. And that's not the only character you'll love to hate: later on Chiaki meets up with rival Matsuda, whose smug, self-satisfied attitude makes him delightfully detestable. The most entertaining relationship, though, is the Chiaki/Nodame/Rui triangle—romance has always been a key factor of the series, after all—which reaches its climax with a madcap identity-switch, and then brought to a humorous close by the arrival of Rui's domineering mother. Because hey, what would the classical music world be without control-freak stage parents?
By comparison, Nodame's chapters are a little less intense (after all, she's not the one trying to lead a national orchestra), but they still have their moments. Her constant claims of being Chiaki's "wife" continue to amuse, and her dealings with fellow musicians Paul and Kuroki strongly highlight their contrasting personalities—again, what really propels the story at this point is how people interact with each other (and whether that will lead to musical success). If there is any criticism to be had, it's that Tomoko Ninomiya seems to be having so much fun portraying the characters that the storyline sometimes gets off track. The Matsuda chapter is kind of a dead end, for example, and Chiaki's quest to save his orchestra abruptly gets sidetracked when Nodame's exams roll around.
Whether it's on the conductor's stand or at the piano keyboard, though, musical performances continue to be the artistic highlight of Nodame. An amusing metaphor from The Sorcerer's Apprentice sums up Chiaki's baton-waving efforts, and as for Nodame's piano technique, her wild mannerisms and expressions say it all. Even if the music isn't familiar (quick, how many of you can hum Poulenc's "Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon"?), the graceful lines, carefully spaced layouts, and mood-appropriate artwork help to capture the feeling of a piece. On the converse side, scenes of everyday life also have a distinctive pace to them, like the staccato humor of Nodame and Rui accidentally getting switched as substitute keyboardists. Simple but striking character designs also add to the series' unique style, but the one major flaw is in the backgrounds—characters often find themselves standing in front of plain white space, a generic screentone, or a hastily drawn interior, which is kind of like hearing a beautiful melody accompanied by a very bland chord progression.
If music and art alone could say all that needed to be said, this volume would be just about right—but a sloppy translation ruins the experience. Look for spectacular typos like "cellesta" (particularly odd considering that it was spelled correctly one volume ago), confusion between "you're" and "your," "the" and "they," and three different ways of spelling "fagott" (really, why not just call it a German bassoon). Various translator's footnotes and a glossary of musical knowledge try to make up for it, but maybe it's time there was an actual music consultant and editor on the staff instead of Google-and-guesswork. Otherwise, most of the character dialogue comes out fine—and often with a touch of humor, like whenever Nodame opens her mouth—but as a professionally translated work, the easily-spotted errors in this volume are unacceptable.
After the awkward meandering of the last couple of volumes (plus that one pivotal moment where Nodame and Chiaki "kind of" officially get together), it's nice to see Nodame Cantabile back on track with the main characters trying to advance their music careers. Chiaki's struggle to save a down-and-out orchestra—as well as dealing with the egomaniacal musicians who stand in his way—provide plenty of momentum and tension to his side of the story. Meanwhile, Nodame's first year at the Paris Conservatory reaches an exciting conclusion as she takes on the challenge of trying to play the piano with personality and self-control. What this all means, of course, is that whether you're into it for the unique characters, the expressive music performances, or both, this volume has it covered.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Strikes an ideal balance of fun, memorable characters, goal-driven storylines, and of course, a strong passion for music.